The legal term “pro se” comes from the Latin and means “for oneself” or “on behalf of themselves.” Over the years, it has come to mean representing oneself in court.[i] In popular vernacular, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.”[ii] While the saying seems “cute” or “kitschy,” the concept is anything but.
Over the years, I have seen many individuals attempt to represent themselves for whatever reason. Without listing the laundry list of reasons why people attempt to represent themselves, I can say this with 100% confidence – – 99.9% of the time representing yourself is a horrible idea. Yes, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while”[iii] and over the years pro se litigants sometimes prevail in court, but the vast majority do not. These pro se representations are slow moving train wrecks with unmitigated disasters for the pro se litigant.
While the reason may be apparent, let me state the obvious – – to learn how to properly represent someone in a legal matter takes several years of schooling, a complete transformational change in thinking, and then even more years of practice as a lawyer to convert someone into an attorney. It takes even more practice and years to become proficient at this skill and then to master it. While there are a few extremely talented individuals out there who can learn these skills on the fly, most cannot. Add the pressure of the dire legal situation to the mix and it becomes one of the most volatile combustible scenarios imaginable.
Years ago, a wise judge used to pose the following question to defendants who demanded their constitutional right to represent themselves in trial. He would ask politely, “sir, as you stand here right now, if your appendix burst, would you operate on yourself?” The question was rhetorical and barely escapes its own statement as to is ridiculousness. Yet, many individuals simply are their own worst enemies.
In my practice, I have encountered many appellate records where the now appellant (because the defendant was convicted and has now appealed the verdict, judgment, and sentence) insisted on representing himself and proceeding pro se. The appellate record is the collection of all the court documents and hearing transcripts from the entire case. In the instances where the appellant insisted on representing himself pro se, calling the appellate record a “mess” is being kind. Without the proper training and skill, the appellate record does not contain the correct objections, proper ruling, or accurate error preservation for any hope of success on appeal. In fact, some of the appellate records are so screwed up in terms of content that the appeal is pointless. Lesson – – do not represent yourself unless you are absolutely, positively sure you can live with the most likely bad results.
Let me reiterate – – the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright[iv] has no meaning if people simply insist on represent themselves in spite of the overwhelming and crushing evidence against the idea.[v] Yes, people can represent themselves, but should they? A popular legal document company advertises, “self-help at your own direction.” Frankly, I have no idea what that means and sounds absurd when you stop and ponder it. It implies that somehow a pro se litigant has the requisite knowledge and understanding to represent themselves by selecting the correct documents. Unless you have specialized training, do you know which antibiotic is the correct antibiotic for your diagnosis and situation? The question is silly because of course you do not.
While search engines like Bing and Google are good at finding basic information, there is no substitute for accurate, professional help. YouTube is great for imparting some knowledge, but some things require a professional to assist. While you might be able to service the engine on your car, would you? While you might be able to diagnose that insidious case of streptococcus that is making your throat sore, but should you do your own medical diagnosis? While you might be able to figure out how to repair the brakes on your car by watching a couple of videos on YouTube, would you? And could you ensure that you and your family are safe in the car.
I understand and appreciate that attorneys cost money and do not work for free (just like everyone else that works at a profession or job expects). If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, then the services of the public defenders’ offices or regional conflict are an option. Do not go it alone.[vi] On the other hand, if you can afford an attorney, then you want to hire the most knowledge and experienced attorney you can find to assist you in your legal nightmare.
Do not go it alone. Let me repeat that – – do not go it alone. Do not be pro se. Keep in mind, if you do not have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to correct the problem the second time? There are no Deloreans that can go 88 m.p.h to take you back to fix your pro se mistake. Do yourself a favor a hire the most experienced and knowledgeable attorney you can find that you feel comfortable with to assist you in navigating your legal nightmare.
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
If you have criminal questions, then please do not hesitate to contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your case.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, then please feel free to leave me a comment below and thank you reading this blog article. Clicking the link, you can also check out the author at his profile on AVVO.com (Anthony Candela)
Image source: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/shrug-emoji
[ii] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/07/30/lawyer/ Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in the 1682 book “Humane Prudence, or, The Art by which a Man May Raise Himself and Fortune to Grandeur” by William De Britaine. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI – – “Before you act, it’s Prudence soberly to consider; for after Action you cannot recede without dishonour: Take the Advice of some Prudent Friend; for he who will be his own Counsellour, shall be sure to have a Fool for his Client.”
[iv] Gideon v. Wainwright, 371 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct.792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963)
[v] See Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975). This is not to diminish the defendant’s person preference and right under the Sixth Amendment to self-representation. But for all the reasons stated above, why would you undertake representing yourself when so much is at stake?
[vi] I understand and appreciate that sometimes the client thinks he or she knows more than the attorney and they can do a better job than the attorney. I assure you this is extremely rare. While most of the request to proceed pro se stem from personality differences, there are a few individuals out there that are not going to be satisfied until they represent themselves. Be forewarned, if you represent yourself, you must live with the consequences because there are usually no “do-overs.”